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Voices in Healthcare

Soda and Candy Aren’t Food

The effort to remove protective tax exemptions from sugary beverages and candy in Massachusetts is back, and I hope 2013 is the year we get this extremely important public health initiative over the goal line.

The proposal is already garnering some well-deserved media attention on WBUR 90.9 FM and its CommonHealth blog; meanwhile, the evidence that over-consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and candy are damaging Americans' health – especially our children's health – continues to mount. At this point, many children drink more sugar-sweetened beverages than milk, and sugar-sweetened beverages represent the largest category of daily caloric intake (7%–12%) for many demographic groups. For each extra can or glass of sugared beverage consumed per day, the likelihood of a child's becoming obese increases by 60%.

The research also shows that taxes on sugary drinks can cut consumption and reduce caloric intake, especially if consumers switch to more healthful beverages. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, one review conducted by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity suggested that for every 10% increase in price, consumption would go down by 7.8%.

Massachusetts state law exempts certain food products from the sales tax. This includes essential items like fruits, vegetables and milk, but it also currently includes soft drinks, sugar and sugar products, and candies. I contend that soda and candy should not be considered "food" under this definition, should be subject to the sales tax, and revenues generated from their sale should be used to support public health efforts to improve nutrition and lower obesity rates for Massachusetts residents.

The Massachusetts Hospital Association (MHA) is a member of the Healthy People/Healthy Economy Coalition, which is continuing its call for an end to the state sales tax exemption for soft drinks and candy. Massachusetts should join the more than 40 other states that already impose sales tax on sugary drinks and candy and end what amounts to a taxpayer subsidy on such items, to support improvements to our residents' public health.

If we want to lower healthcare costs, we need to support prevention efforts along with payment and care delivery reform. The state legislature has really focused on lowering healthcare cost trends in recent years and now they can make further advances by supporting measures like this. As a commonwealth, we now promote accountable care. I think the time is ripe for an accountable health policy. The two should be aligned and removing the tax exemption on sugary beverages and candy is a sensible and important step in that direction.